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Today, doom is more popular now than it ever has been, across all fronts. But it's a bizarre paradox.
To hear those who were there tell it, even though Black Sabbath sold quite a few million records back in the day, it was unlikely you'd hear them on the radio. Along with their recent reunion has been a rebirth of interest of classic-sounding occult rock. Doom festivals worldwide receive audiences numbering in the thousands, and sold out tours for some of these new acts have become commonplace. There are over forty years of legendary bands and songs to jam out on, and there will always be musicians who love to write a killer riff. There will likely always be an audience for that too, as long as mainstream music continues to fail at satisfying this need.
And yet, unless you specifically search online for doom metal, you will only hear crickets.
Making Doom Work for You
Life in a doom metal band can be quite hard. Many of these musicians work second jobs to keep a roof overhead, the lights on, and beer in the fridge producing their work independently due to lack of mainstream label interest. Even a successful doom musician like Scott Weinrich has an arrangement with his wife to be a stay-at-home dad with his kids when he isn't on tour.
This has fostered a DIY ethos traditionally associated with punk rock and a small, though strong and knowledgeable community of fans. Many bands these days are embracing old technology anew with the organic warmth of tube amps and other traditional methods of recording. You could call it "retro" or "vintage" if you wanted, or even cynically suggest that they are only fetishizing analog methods to appeal to modern disenfranchisement. But if they want to create this music, do they really have much choice?
Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats
Take a band like Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, for example.
Very psychedelic and dark, isn't it? Yet, Uncle Acid records all of their parts with analog equipment to get that British 1970s feel that is so key to the atmosphere.
"I wanted to write songs that I wanted to hear, that I wasn't getting from the modern bands. I didn't hear the melodies, or the riffs that spoke to me, so I thought, why not write it myself?" says Kevin Starr (aka Uncle Acid himself). With strong influences and visual themes of Hammer horror films, the occult, serial killers, film noir and giallo, the band is one of the top touring doom bands of today - especially since playing Maryland Death Fest for the first time and launching its first North American tour.
And fun fact: Kevin Starr's "desert island disc," the album he would take with him if that was the only one he could have?
Neil Young's On The Beach, 1974. Chew on that.
Current US Doom Scene
Transatlantically, American doom is also having quite the renaissance as well, many of them embracing the exploratory, psychedelic and even progressive parts of old, classic influences. The national scene is frankly blooming with talent both old and new alike, a richness almost unrivaled in all of metal. Many of these bands formed as early as the late 1990s and hit their stride in the mid-2000s.
Elder is a trio from the Boston area whose long songs and jam-worthy action have earned them acclaim.
I used to hang out with someone who loved to claim that she was always the only girl at doom shows. That might be more difficult to pull off these days as female-fronted doom bands continue to win much-deserved respect. In the traditional doom hotbed of Maryland-DC-Northern Virginia comes Windhand, an outfit whose dark folk leanings have won them acclaim. I remember that they were the first band to play on Day 4 of Maryland Death Fest XII, kicking off the whole day at 12:30 sharp with aplomb. They've only gotten better and more popular since.
And Blood Ceremony, from north of the border in Canada, would make Ian Anderson proud.
Coming from a small city that doesn't exactly scream "metal" (Little Rock, Arkansas), Pallbearer helped put the city's local scene on the map with two successful recent records. What sets them apart is how many different, non-metal year-end lists Pallbearer has found itself on since 2012. The fact that many serious music fans who enjoy all types of music, and who wouldn't normally listen to metal, seem to appreciate Pallbearer's work no doubt sent a few fans into a rabid frenzy.
Bassist Joseph Roland, however, isn't concerned: "I really don't care what people listen to; if they enjoy it and it speaks to them - good! Whatever it may be, it's pointless and kind of a non-issue as far as I'm concerned," he told The Quietus in an interview.
Roland's own musical upbringing is also an interesting study whose influences are fun to look for in Pallbearer's doom metal. He was raised on classical and sacred music, influences that still inspire his writing and sense of melody. He has even cited Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere Mei, Deus" as the most affecting piece of music he has ever heard. The most fun they ever had on tour was with Enslaved - and that makes perfect sense to me, because I was at the final show of that tour when all the band pranks happened. Someone dressed up as Thor ran onstage and threw hammers at the crowd. Hilarious.
Heading Out West
Another band that has helped expand doom metal's audience beyond its traditional circles is YOB. They hail from farther West in the United States, from Eugene, Oregon - a town most famous for the American craft beer powerhouse Ninkasi Brewing Company. And now also YOB.
YOB and Mike Scheidt have an interest in the exploratory mountains of Eastern mysticism and the cosmos, and have a habit in their live shows of ending with a traditional "namaste" bow. "It's acknowledging that people just gave us their energy, support and love, and we did our best to rise and be good for it and we created something together... it's meant to connect and be grateful," says Scheidt, the bands frontman and only constant member. "When I get the feeling that the connection in the room is present and shared, that is the best experience by far."
In the Indiana doom metal scene, for years there was essentially only one gig in town: The Gates of Slumber.
Their early work centered on the bands favorite fantasy themes by authors like Michael Moorcock - lyrical content and artwork more traditionally associated with power metal. Still, they could doom out with the best of them, and the swords and castles themes didn't mean they had to play as fast as a charging knight on horseback.
As acclaimed as the Gates' output was, the band suffered from "the scourge of drunkenness," which often had the effect of amplifying their personal differences. Ultimately they broke up in 2014, but fans hoping for a reunion were perhaps too hopeful. Bassist and songwriter Jason McCash died soon thereafter. He was only 38.
"My best friend died last night," bandmate Karl Simon wrote on the band's webpage when it happened, "there will be no reunion - no more The Gates of Slumber. It's dead beyond dead, and I've lost a brother." A sad loss for doom - they really were good. RIP.
San Francisco, an area most famous for its legendary thrash metal and some hardcore punk groups like the Dead Kennedys, has also gotten into the doom rock revival with local band Orchid. That makes sense, given the city's historical place in psychedelic, mind-freeing music. Orchid creates its own album art and has absorbed classic doom's music lessons in a very real way. They frankly should have been chosen as Black Sabbath's support act on the North American leg of their final tour. The band has demonstrated that they truly "get it."
Japanese Doom Scene
To go even farther west, across the Pacific Ocean back to Japan, there is a tiny (but not nonexistent!) doom scene with a couple of excellent bands sporting deep discographies.
One could argue that "doom" as we call it now in the Land of the Rising Sun started with the Flower Travellin' Band in the early '70s. A powerhouse cult album called Satori came out around the same time as the legendary Master of Reality record by Black Sabbath--and likely matched Ozzy and company in terms of heaviness! They were only around for a few years. But Flower Travellin Band proved that there was not only a Japanese audience for the Sabbath style of music, but that they could and would be inspired to create their own. It's an important flipside to those who don't care for the high-speed, glamlike visual kei and ballads that Japanese metal is best known for.
You're allowed to like both, you know...
Japan's longest-lived, Duracell battery of a doom institution is a band that has been together since 1989. They are called Ningen Isu - which translated, means "Human Chair." The band is named after the short story of the same name by Edogawa Rampo (a Japanese horror writer from the 1920s-30s).
"We thought we wanted to make original songs which were like that kind of British hard rock bands," Christmas baby and frontman Shinji Wajima told Invisible Oranges, "but I couldn't write the lyrics in English as intended. I thought we couldn't surpass the British hard rock bands if we only followed their concepts. So we decided the band's concept was to write the lyrics in Japanese and make the band name in Japanese."
If they hadn't done that, it's unlikely Ningen Isu would have the loyal, committed following it has today. "The works of Ryunosuke Akutagawa are just perfect," the band members speak glowingly of the classic Japanese novelists and their influence upon their personal lyricism, "I especially recommend to the people overseas Junichirou Tanizaki. His works describe the aesthetics of Japan very well."
This unabashed national pride is also reflected in their stage dress--traditional Japanese garments and makeup all around. That being said, the band isn't above performing a shoutout to a certain American horror writer of some renown...
"We have not played and made music which float along with the flow of time. That means we want to keep our faith and don’t want to tell a lie," Wajima finishes the Invisible Oranges interview, "I believe that kind of pureness must be welcomed by listeners."
The final Japanese doom act I'll discuss is one that passionately embraces a very British/American subject: serial killers.
"I'm really interested in the process of them turning from a normal guy into a psychotic killer – it's a really interesting story," bassist Tatsu Mikami told The Quietus in a recent interview. Along with the usual Sabbath and Zeppelin influences, Mikami and his band, Church of Misery, were heavily influenced by some early hard rock bands that are considered pretty cult and underground even here in the West: Toad, Quatermass, Cactus, Sir Lord Baltimore, and Leaf Hound, among others.
Needless to say, these documents (and that's what the songs are...documents, not deification or glorification) often meet with controversy. Church of Misery are the most recent band I know of to have to change their album cover for it to be sold in British record stores. The reason was that their record Thy Kingdom Scum originally had a photo of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley--the infamous British murder duo and the latter often referred to as "the most evil woman in Britain." The subject of the Moors murders, and even their images, are still an open wound among the British public.
Perhaps even more understandable is why the band has been sitting on a twenty-minute epic about the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, masterminded by the quasi-religious fanatics Shoko Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo. "It's still very sensitive in Japan... you'll be able to hear it in the near future," Mikami promises, "nobody expects us to write songs about Norman Borlaug!"
Keeping It Old School
As discussed earlier, leading an underground doom metal band is no picnic. There is often very little financial compensation, making this music a true labor of love. In Japan, however, at least one aspect of the music culture makes it worthwhile to be a doom metal fan: the emphasis upon physical media and merchandising. Yes, the Japanese still buy CDs and vinyl, and the presentation and artwork that go into these items are considered an important part of the experience.
In addition, Japan being a cash-oriented society (as opposed to plastic/credit) and a multi-layered retail distribution network favor physical media. Streaming services are almost nonexistent. Naturally, record labels (mostly headquartered in the West), consider this a huge problem that needs "fixing"... as though treating musicians cheaply and their work as a disposable commodity is some kind of enlightened practice.
Honestly, good on the Japanese. Metal fans in general have long been more likely than the average music fan to embrace physical media, merchandise and collectors items--and in Japan, they have an easier time doing so. Metalheads in Japan, count your blessings!
Europe (Non-UK) Doom Scene
For something tougher to categorize within the doom subgenre, we'll shift the action over to France. Northwinds released its first record in the late '90s (The Great God Pan) and is inspired by traditional folk music and airy progressive rock, especially from their homeland. They are on the lighter side, but nevertheless meaningful for being a proud, quality band and offering their service to a country that is not exactly a hotbed for metal (yes, Gojira fans, I see you).
Sweden, however, has no trouble staying at the forefront of the doom genre as long as it has Witchcraft, a hybrid of doom and the stoner rock from the previous section. Initially formed as a Pentagram tribute band, Witchcraft eventually became much more as they began crafting their own originals, with lots of clean, but dark, melody. Bobby Liebling has even joined them onstage from time to time when they are in town to jam out on the songs that made Witchcraft form up in the first place. They have truly come into their own being.
Catching Up With the Old Guard
Before we wrap things up here, know that even all four parts of this series put together are not exhaustive. There are hundreds of excellent bands all over the world creating this music with integrity, passion, and power. My best hope for this series is that it serves as merely the tip of the iceberg to doom's glorious depths. By all means, continue to drill down and explore!
We'll conclude this part (and the series) by taking a quick status update on the old guard, who overall continue to be productive despite their aging.
It is sometimes said that Bobby Liebling himself can be Pentagram's own worst enemy, as the band seems to disappear and resurface for years on end from time to time. Thus, I was surprised, but not too surprised, to find that Pentagram had released a new album and booked a number of tour dates. When I caught them on tour, the atmosphere was one of a kind.
Liebling and his bandmates gently pushed their way through the audience to get to the stage - if you weren't paying attention you wouldn't have seen them. The crowd was almost entirely headbangers much younger than the band itself. And watching Liebling perform, bug-eyed, twitchy and cagey, is fascinating. To be frank, nothing he said outside the songs made any sense except for "Thank you for coming out," but from the laughs around me I assume that's just part of the charm.
Perhaps this is one of the upward trajectories of Liebling's and Pentagram's life graph, but America's grandfathers of doom metal are not ready to "Close the Casket" just yet.
Doomsters had a big scare in 2014-2015 when Leif Edling of Candlemass took seriously ill and had to take some extended time off. In addition to that, Rob Lowe quit the band after 2012's Psalms For the Dead, and the band's press indicated that Candlemass, like Leif was simply spent, fatigued, and done. The band has had to tour since then without their founding member, a palpable loss.
But bedridden or not, it doesn't seem Leif can stop writing awesome riffs. With a newly revamped website and a new EP mixed and ready for the 30th anniversary of Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, Candlemass has not yet faded away. The band toured Latin America in spring 2016 and are releasing lots of demos and commemorative merch for 30 years together. Edling is well enough to participate in recording, and Mats Leven of Therion has been brought on full-time as Lowe's replacement. Fingers crossed for improved health and dynamism, that Candlemass can continue to ring in this legendary milestone with power and grace.
Finally bowing out of the live music portion of its career is that original, always-loved Black Sabbath. When the reunion of the Ozzy Osbourne lineup was announced (minus drummer Bill Ward), metal fans (myself included) simply couldn't believe it. But as Ozzy said at the press conference, "It was just time, you know? Just time."
Since then, happy fans have come to worship once again at the Sabbath, and the final shows have been nothing short of mesmerizing. Nevertheless, fears mounted as Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma. Though speaking warmly and lovingly of his bandmates helping him through this dark period, it seems all but a certainty at this point that this illness will mean the end of Sabbath.
Ozzy Osbourne too, has been waxing philosophical as more and more of his peers pass on from this world: "Lemmy's died, Bowie's died. Jimmy from Ronnie James Dio died, Natalie Cole died, the singer from the Stone Temple Pilots died, the guy from the Eagles died. It's like, every day somebody else dies and I'm thinking, fucking hell, I hope I'm not...I'm not liking this."
But if the past is any indication, "The End" (beginning of the end?) of Sabbath will not be the end of doom. Far from it.
"When I am onstage as a performer, as a soul, I want to dig as deep as I can." - Mike Scheidt, YOB.
"I really respect and hand it to Bobby [Liebling] for keeping the band going - because if he didn't, you probably wouldn't be talking to me now," Vincent McCallister, former guitarist, Pentagram.
"I met a fan in Baltimore who told me that [our album] 'Sorrow and Extinction' was a critical part of him dealing with the suicide of one of his closest friends...that affected me quite a bit. I honestly didn't know how to respond." - Joseph Roland, Pallbearer.
I hope this guide has inspired you to start exploring the world of doom metal ever more deeply, ever more darkly.. If you're intrigued, I hope you give it a shot - new fans always welcome and appreciated. For us doomsters, this music takes us back to something almost primordial, something dark but beautiful, like the first time we were spooked by a horror movie... or the first time we picked up an instrument and tried playing that riff we heard somewhere, a riff that has awakened a wellspring of inner strength.